“Music is the aural expression of place—a geyser emoting sound, not water.”
It’s where Elvis Presley built his mansion and where Aretha Franklin was born. Sun, Stax and Big Star emerged from its side of the Mississippi River. Memphis is one of a handful of American cities that seems to define music as we know it. But in his 1995 book, It Came from Memphis, Robert Gordon demonstrated that this industry town, whose resident muses helped lay the foundation for generations of Top 40 hits, has a strange and desperate undercurrent just hinted at by its favored children. Gordon’s new book, Memphis Rent Party, collects essays, some of them previously unpublished, that continue the thread began over 20 years ago.
Sam Phillips, founder of Sun Records, described his goal as “perfect imperfection,” and according to Gordon, “that’s pretty much the Memphis approach to art.” And that’s pretty much the muse Gordon has chased all these years. From undisputed legends such as Jerry Lee Lewis to the intermittently populist instincts of Alex Chilton to more obscure local blues bands such as the Fieldstones, these are artists who’ve lived rough, difficult lives, and whose music was fueled by a personal, idiosyncratic passion that for the most part avoided the inevitable sheen of commercial success.
The sound of Memphis can be heard outside the recording studio, in the fife and drum picnics held by Otha Turner in nearby Mississippi. Gordon’s feel for the region goes beyond music, to the acute sense of place created in a previously unpublished profile of fisherman Ernest Willis. Such deep digs into such unlikely figures proves that the author is unmoved by celebrity—a posthumous piece on Jeff Buckley reflects Gordon’s respect for the singer’s need to escape prying eyes, which was the very reason he came to Memphis.
The book’s title comes from a piece on Junior Kimbrough, whose house parties reminded Gordon of a custom he learned about in a class on the Harlem Renaissance; at “rent parties,” an apartment’s furniture was shoved into one room to make way for dancing, and revelers would bring food and money to help their friends get by. But even though Kimbrough’s family sold drinks at such gatherings, it wasn’t just about the money: it was, “a way of reminding the worn and the weary of the reasons for living, a way to reinvigorate the spirit after a week of otherwise abject poverty and grueling manual labor.”
Memphis Rent Party has little overlap with its predecessor, even in cases where he’s covered the subject before. Its chapters more likely to focus on a single artist than those of It Came from Memphis, which cast the city as a sprawling community of colorful characters more than likely to wander in on each other’s lives. If anything, that shambling interconnectedness is missed in the new book, but that doesn’t mean that you won’t find Jim Dickinson, Tav Falco and Alex Chilton turning up at regular intervals. To a lesser extent, that goes for photographer William Eggleston, who was all over the Memphis music scene. His presence is felt a little less here, but Gordon’s descriptions of the early video footage Eggleston shot for the documentary Stranded in Canton suggests that the photographer’s meticulously composed still images made way for a vivid and much looser depiction of this shaggy milieu.
“Music is the aural expression of place—a geyser emoting sound, not water.” Memphis Rent Party is perhaps best read in tandem with It Came from Memphis. But wherever one starts on Gordon’s prose, they’ll feel like they’ve heard that geyser, and will be ready to hear more.